I get the impression that people sometimes lump criticism and editing together when they are in fact two very separate entities. Since you don’t want to make the mistake of giving one when someone wanted the other, it’s important to understand their differences. From what I can see, the biggest differences are who, how, and why.
As a rule, criticism is given when the author has asked for it either by taking part in a writing circle or asking a friend to read the piece and give feedback1. Giving feedback to an author who hasn’t asked for it is generally considered rude, so be mindful of that.
- Who: friends, colleagues, or members of a writing circle
- How: through friendly conversation in person, by phone/email, or on a forum
- Why: 1. because the author asked for feedback 2. to find big problems with the story (not the grammar2)
Getting feedback about the story is not about hundreds of minute problems and how to fix them. It should be a couple of big ideas, specific scenes, or specific problems (like characterization, plot, or setting). Remember that the goal is to improve the story, not to fix grammar errors.
Authors may or may not ask for outside feedback and criticism, but all authors should go through some form of editing even if it means hiring a copyeditor. If you’re going through a publisher, some of the editing will include story-related problems (like criticism), but the main focus is word usage, punctuation, and formatting – in other words, making sure that the story is written in generally correct English (or at least intelligible English).
- Who: an editor paid by the author or the publisher
- How: through markings on the manuscript (or file)
- Why: 1. to correct technical writing issues like grammar and punctuation and 2. to fix any major story problems that might prevent sales (generally, to make the work readable and sellable)
Most likely, editing will involve hundreds of minute problems and how to fix them. Although editing through a publisher may very well include story feedback, editing as a whole is more about syntax, punctuation, and formatting.
Criticism v. Editing
While some might call them two sides of the same coin, I think of criticism and editing as two destinations on a road trip. You might go to two different towns for similar reasons, but the goals and details of the experiences are not the same. If you went to Town A, and got Town B instead, you’d be confused and frustrated (seriously, that would just be weird).
So if someone asks for criticism, give criticism. If someone asks for editing, give editing. If you’re not sure what the person wanted, ask.
1. Note that I am not including book reviews in this because generally they are written for people interested in reading the book – not the author.
2. The only time grammar is usually critiqued in a writer circle is if it is so bad that the story is unintelligible. There may be exceptions to this, but usually the goal is to focus on the story itself.